Should A Writer Get An English Degree, Yes Or No?

This is apparently a question, so I will attempt to address it.

I have no idea what you should or should not do. Every writer tends to carve their own writer-shaped door into the industry, and then they seal it shut behind them, Cask-of-Amontillado-style. (I can make that Poe joke because I was an English major. I have a license for such literary shenanigans; if you are caught making such a pun without the proper degree, you will be hunted.) There exists no One True Way to become a writer except, you know, go read stuff, live a life, and write things down. Keep reading stuff, living your life, and writing things down until you get sorta okay at it, and then later until you maybe get sorta good at it, and hey, ta-da, you’re probably a writer. Maybe even a professional one of some level of success from MEAGER TRILOBYTE to MIDLIST INKSLINGER to GRAND CONQUERING PENMONKEY OF THE REALM.

There, the end, go do it.

*waits*

*notices you’re still here*

Oh, you still want to talk about this English degree thing.

Okay, fine, fine.

You don’t need an English degree. You can get any degree you want. Or no degree. Or two degrees. Fuck it, get three! Or you can drop out of high school. Or be a doctor. Or an engineer. Or a lawyer. Or an international assassin.

I have an English degree.

Just a BA. Never went further.

It did well for me. I never had much trouble getting work, and really, that’s part of the question, isn’t it? This is really a two-part deal: the first is, I want to be a writer, so which program is best to help me learn that skill (and writing is a skill, by the way, one that you can both practice and one that can be enhanced with training). The second part is, but also how do I not starve and die while trying to become a proper penmonkey?

Here’s why you might consider an English degree in that regard.

At the school level, an English degree covers things you ostensibly should love, and it will deepen your appreciation of things like, oh, I dunno, BOOKS and WORDS and STORIES. You will be given a sense of literary tradition from Beowulf on up. But it’s not just Jane Austen and Chaucer, mind you. A well-rounded English program is pretty diverse, and may even let you customize your approach. You’ll learn some history, some journalism, you might learn literary criticism ranging from structuralist crit to feminist crit to all the other schools of criticism. You’ll read poetry, you’ll read essays of early American history, you’ll learn composition and non-fiction, you’ll learn about essays and memoirs and even some technical writing. An English degree was my first exposure to Toni Morrison (who I got to meet and learn from, courtesy of my English program), to Margaret Atwood (*waves*), to James Joyce, Joseph Campbell, to Maus. We studied comic books and mythology and — I mean, it was awesome. I had a great program with (mostly) amazing teachers. Being a writer has been helped by reading deeply and diversely and by getting to see the breadth and depth of the tradition of what I wanted to do.

Then, on the career side of things, English majors do okay. I never had anyone roll their eyes at an English degree on the employment side — I had people in my family or life roll their eyes as if it was a toilet paper degree, but it’s not. Some English majors I know are now lawyers. Some work for huge banks or tech companies, others in marketing and advertising because, y’know, the ability to communicate and write and to know the history of the written word will serve you well across a wide variety of fields. It’s a little like a Swiss Army knife degree — it has a lot of tools packed into it. None of them are single-serving laser-focused, but it allows you to jump into the workforce fairly quickly. I had jobs in advertising, tech, in the library system, all because of one measly-ass English degree. I always did pretty well financially. It was not a bad choice, and most of the English majors I know are in fairly healthy shape, job-wise. Some aren’t using any part of their training, but it also didn’t hurt them. Others are using some of their degree, and others still are successful writers, playwrights, even screenwriters.

So, is it a bad idea?

Probably not. English degree gets you the one-two punch of: COOL WORDSMITHY POWERS and NOT ENTIRELY AWFUL JOB OPPORTUNITIES SO YOU WON’T STARVE AND DIE IMMEDIATELY.

Is it the best idea?

Well, how the fuck do I know? Listen, you as a person have a degree of interests and aptitudes. If you are privileged enough to be able to, find a degree that speaks to the things you like and the things you can do, and ride those things to a degree and to a writing career. History, philosophy, tech, art, whatever. None of them will hurt your writing career, and if you work your ass off and are open to learning, I think you’ll be fine. Especially if you never forget that you want to be a writer, which is to say, write your ass off no matter your degree, no matter your training. Work is the purest, cleanest way to be what you want to be. It isn’t always enough, but it’s how it starts.

You wanna be a writer, be a writer.

You wanna get an English degree, get an English degree.

Wanna wander the Earth like Sad Hulk, wander the Earth like Sad Hulk.

No shame for your choices. Just go and do it, and kick ass in whatever you choose.